Saturday, June 13, 2009

Working the Middle Out of Your Middle

by Cheryl St John
Moving on With the Story
Research on long-term space flights has revealed that astronauts experience the most physiologically difficult leg of their journey at the midway point. The travelers reported more lethargy, irritability and homesickness halfway through the mission. Comparing it to the journey of writing a book, I can see that it’s because the initial excitement has abated, and yet home (the end) isn’t yet within sight.

You’ve probably been on a long car trip with children. Which stretch would you say was the most difficult? No, really, you have to pick ONE. The middle perhaps? You probably had to come up with some creative ideas to keep your kids from killing each other and to save your sanity.

Everything after chapter three until you reach the black moment and resolution is the middle. You spent three chapters introducing your characters, setting up the conflict, creating a dynamic hook, showing your setting, hinting at the backstory and teasing the reader with the promise of this adventure. That’s a whole lot of finesse and fine-tuning and planning and execution. And now, you’ve walked into a gray area/the twilight zone/the unknown and perhaps even uncharted center of the story. Gulp.

Here’s where self-doubt raises its ugly head. You’re the one who’s going to have to tune out doubts and do some self-talk. Seriously. If you want this badly enough, you’re going to have to believe in yourself and start thinking more positively about your ability to accomplish your goals and learn in the process.

What if this is a fluke?
Then you haven’t really tried or given yourself a chance. You’re allowing fear to stifle you.

What if I can’t really do this?
What if you can? All the techniques of writing are learnable. The storytelling gift is one you’ve been given, and you have the desire inside or you wouldn’t be doing this. The only one who will stop you is you.

What will my family think if they read it? Yikes, there’s sex!
A logical consideration. You have to decide whether or not this worry will disturb you enough to hinder you. If you’re not comfortable with it, maybe you need to consider another genre. More likely than not, however, they won’t be shocked. Or they will simply choose not to read your work. Not everyone loves everything we write (or do for that matter).

What will my friends and fellow writers think if I show this to them and it’s not good?
Your fellow writers will think you’re brave for being open to their opinions and evaluations. Even if it’s not good, you will open yourself up for help to grow and learn. And those friends? I’ve learned they like it all, even if it’s not good! LOL They’re not editors or reviewers.

What if it’s not good?
Congratulations. You don’t think every word you write is gold. And you’re willing to be coached. You will succeed with that attitude.

What if no one ever wants to publish it?
If you never sold anything you wrote, would you still want to write? Is it a desire you can’t turn your back on? Taking classes and actually putting words on paper are more than many people accomplish. There are plenty who like the IDEA of being a writer, but not the work involved. Those willing to do the work are those more likely to sell, obviously.

Nobody has a crystal ball considering your future in publishing. Believe in yourself and have a positive attitude. If you submit something and turn around and say, “I hope I get rejected quickly and get it over with,” you’re shooting yourself in the foot with your attitude.

So you’ve got three chapters all spiffy and shiny. Now what? You’ve just figured out who these people are. Any time during the chapters that follow, you might need to go back to the beginning and adjust for the growing knowledge about your characters. Stay open to their development. But don’t go back and get bogged down in rewriting the beginning because you can’t seem to go forward from the middle.

Speaking from experience here and talking to self: “Yes, you can. Stop whining.” How many people do you know who have never moved past the beginning of their first book? What is stopping them? Lack of confidence. Fear of failure. Fear of success.

How many people do you know who have written several first three chapters, and then flail and flounder and don’t finish that project, but start another? Why? Fear. Laziness. Writing a book is hard work. Maybe they didn’t plan the book well enough in advance and there really is nowhere to go now. Perhaps they wrote a great first meet and everything was downhill from there. Maybe they weren’t listening to the part about needing conflict to sustain the middle—or missed that class altogether. Maybe “they” is you? If so, there’s help for you. Recognize and choose to fix it and finish the book no matter what.

There’s nothing wrong with going back and rereading the beginning to recapture the initial excitement. Read the synopsis. Read over the notes you made and the character sketches, if any. Figure out what it was about this story that caught your interest and made you want to tell it. Read all the way to where you’ve stalled, but then keep moving forward.

Finish the rough draft
If you don’t think it’s perfect; you can always go back and fix it.
You can fix crap, but you can’t fix nothing.

Be Convincing
Convince the reader to care about your story and your characters.

Convince yourself you care about this book

Use all the tools you’ve been given in the workshops you’ve attended. Read and apply The Techniques of The Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. If you’ve read it before, read it again. I still refresh myself in the middle of the book. You have to do whatever it takes to move forward.

Paralyzing Perfectionism
I am a perfectionist, often a discouraged one. I make my husband crazy with my obsessive need for alignment and perfect paint jobs, just to name a couple of things. I’m one of those place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place people, so I get perfectionism. I do. And your finished manuscript should be as perfect as you can make it, no doubt about it. This is a competitive market.

But perfectionism has no place in your creative outbursts or your brainstorming or your first drafts. Perfectionism will suck the life out of your voice and make you crazy. Raise your hand if this is you: A small detail will hold up the completion of a scene. A bit of research you need puts a halt to your day’s writing until the fact is found. You rewrite dialogue ten or twenty times to get it just right. You rewrite narrative and replace words with better words and use your synonym finder and reconstruct sentences until they are, yes, perfect.

Don’t misunderstand me. Writers are rewriters. We edit. We adjust sentences. We reread and tweak. But if you’re repeatedly going back over the same scenes and chapters, it’s possible that you’re stripping away every ounce of spontaneity and replacing your voice with what you think is a better voice.

I never knew I had a voice until my editor told me so after I’d written about four books. “Really? I have a voice? Wow, who knew?” Voice is your personality on the page. It’s the way you phrase things and your word choices and the way you string sentences together. You don’t have to THINK about it. When you’re being real it just happens.

Here’s an exercise to get past perfectionism:
Turn off your phone. Set a timer if you have to and don’t let yourself stop until it goes off. Wherever you are in your work in progress, place your character in a new scene where s/he receives something. A letter, a gift, a lab report, a bill, a punch in the nose. (Be creative; that’s your job.) Now close yourself off in your writing cave for at least fifteen minutes, but half an hour would be awesome. Picture the scene first.

Close your eyes and see the scene where your character receives something. How does s/he receive it--graciously, scornfully, morosely, credulously, reluctantly? Now write the scene without stopping to edit or find a synonym. If you don’t know something, leave an asterisk and come back to it later. Use dialogue and include FEELINGS.

When the timer goes off, you can go back through and correct spelling and grammar and fill in asterisks if you want to. But then save that file and don’t look at it for a while. Go back to it later, print it out and read it through.

Did you learn anything about your character that you didn’t know?
Do you see anything in your writing that impresses you?
Is there anything here that you can use now or later?
How hard was it for you to write without editing and rewriting as you went?

I’d love to hear how you do!

Cheryl St John has authored over 35 Harlequin and Silhouette books. She has been nominated for RITA awards, received Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice awards, and her Harkequin Historical BIG SKY BRIDES anthology climbed to #35 on the NYT list.
Cheryl's first ever Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historical THE PREACHER'S WIFE is her current release on shelves now.
If you'd like information on Cheryl's monthly classes for writers, check her schedule at
Cheryl has a spanking new website at but for an added treat, check Cheryl's old website for 'Things An Author Hates To Hear - And The Answers You Can Expect'. (Although I'm not sure how long this one will be on-line.)


Nayuleska said...

Thank you for the encouragement here. I didn't do the exercise, but I thought about the questions and could answer yes to some of them :)

Captain Hook said...

Cheryl, awesome post! I kept finding myself nodding and agreeing. I used to be one of those who would get a few chapters in and then fizzle and move on to something else. The day I finished my first rough draft, I was beyond excited.

Now as to the road trip analogy, it works in comparison to my writing, but the middle is not where I have trouble with either. With 5 kids (2 steps and 3 of my own), I learned early that the best way to travel is at night when the kids were asleep.

So when driving somewhere, we'd hit the road around 10pm and the trip would be smooth sailing until the last few hours when the little darlings woke up. Same with my writing. The end is where I always get stuck. In fact all my endings suck :)

One good thing though, the perfectionism gene passed me by.

Ban said...

Hi, my name is Ban and I'm a perfectionist. Yep, you described me to a T, everything has a place, find the right word, go back, find a better word ... etc. Thank you so much for this post, it was just the kick in the rear I've been needing !!! See I haven't had trouble with my middle 'cause I haven't allowed myself to get there yet. I'm stuck in a loop, constantly breaking out of the starting gate but getting nowhere. I will definately try your exercise and again, thank you !

Silver James said...

Hi, my name is Silver and I used to be a perfectionist but managed to take a month-long cure called NaNoWriMo. *looks at ban and smoe of the other Chicks and contemplates a challenge come November*

My middles may drag a bit but it's the downhill slide to end that often derails my writing. For some reason, the brakes are applied and I come to a screeching halt. I know the end of the book but getting through those last 10K-15K words is like walking through thick mud.

This is some great advice, Cheryl, and I see how it can apply to my dilemma as well. As for the exercise, once I'm through this set of edits and the MS is returned to my editor, I'll apply it to my current WIP. Thanks for stopping by the Prairie today.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Good morning friends, you're such early risers!

Morning, Cheryl. I'm a perfectionist in the sense that I tweak and twiddle and don't want to let my baby go even after it's done because I know I can make it better.

Hey Capt'n, we used to drive at night, too. And then we got older. :)

Like Silver, I can complete the first draft during Nov's NaNoWriMo but most of that is because the family respects authority and if that's when NaNo is, that's when my writing is allowed to take priority.

Excellent post, Cheryl.

Christine Rimmer said...

Cheryl, just dropping in to say hi.

Fabulous advice. I so agree. The exercise you suggest, to keep writing without fixing, is an excellent one to keep the inner critic (aka perfectionist) in check.

Great post!

Helena said...

I agree with *awesome* and would add in STUPENDOUS -- such a useful post, Cheryl. Thank you for bringing us your expertise today.

I can relate to most of what you say because I finally reached some of the same conclusions, tho not all of your good ideas have filtered into my regular habits yet.

I find the middle the most daunting part because that's where all the conflict has to happen and those scenes are so hard to write. (But you get such a feeling of exhilaration once you've done one, mixed in with the emotional and mental exhaustion.)

You don't need to talk to me about perfectionism. I'm the one who had ten drafts of a prologue (which I might not even use now) and almost as many of chapter one before I had anything more written. (This is my first attempt at writing a novel.) It became clear I would never finish a first draft if I didn't drop the idea that it had to be perfect the first time through. It was likely a delaying tactic as well, because of not wanting to tackle the middle. Part of my problem might also be that altho I know my characters and their issues and I know how the story must end, I haven't figured out exactly HOW the issues will be resolved to reach the desired ending. In spite of doing a plot synopsis, it isn't until I write the specific scenes that the plot advances to my satisfaction. Only solution to that problem is to continue writing, each scene building on the one before it.

I simply had to comment on your post first, but will now go on to your websites and also look into your classes. You have certainly inspired me this morning.

Edna said...

Lost the post and I do like the book so please enter me.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Yikes, I'd never really looked at the middle as spanning such a large space. A daunting task for sure if one looks at everything after those first chapters. I find I think in acts, which gives me something to look forward to and keep the interest higher during the middle, but potentially produces other mini-middles to deal with. But then it seems writers always need to dupe themselves in some way, to make the task seem manageable.

I'm an inconsistent perfectionist, if that's an option. I will tweak and fiddle with some things to the detriment of progress, but others I can ignore (or consider sheer genius set into word document.... and deal with them later ;) I don't like to see my writing get repetitive, same descriptor, same expression over and over, so I try to tweak it all as I go along.. and god help me if I go looking for a synonym I can't quite place. I may not come back. But.. I think I'm getting better at it. Your exercise sounds like a good way to strike a compromise between the tweaking and the progress, so I'll have to give it a try.

Suse said...

Hi Cheryl,

Thank you for this post. I found it very inspiring. I find when I struggle with the middle of a novel or even a short story, it's because I don't know my characters well enough, or my plot is lacking. I've stopped and conducted a couple of interviews with my characters to get to know them better. This has helped me move forward. I like your exercise suggestion though. What a concrete way to get to know your character, with a possible side bonus of developing a scene for the story. I will definitely try that.

My coworkers don't call me a perfectionist, but they do say that I'm anal. (So, I like things orderly. I don't mind them saying so though. I know I am and I think it works for me on the whole.)

I haven't written much fiction lately but I have written a few articles for a local magazine with tight deadlines. I definitely don't have the option of spending time on perfecting or crafting my sentences. I think I need deadlines to prevent me from going over and over my writing, but a deadline with a longer lead time would be nice.

I stopped by your new website. Love the new look. I'm glad to see the recipe section is still there.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there, Edna - It's too bad you lost the post because I believe you have things a mite mixed up. But thanks for the visit and you're welcome to come back anytime. :)

Cheryl St.John said...

Hi, Yunaleska! Thanks for dropping in.

Cap'n, I'm laughing at your devious plot to drive at night. Whatever works is my philosophy!

I love writing the end - it's usually been such a long time in coming - or so it seems.

Thanks for your frankness, Ban. I have a good friend who used to be just like that - sucking the life out of her voice by constantly tweaking the sentences until they were flat and lifeless. Once she got past that and began writing without excessive editing, it made a world of difference in her writing. Good for you for working on it!

Cheryl St.John said...

Silver, I confess I never make it as far in Nano as I think I will, because I do go back and edit in order to move forward. But by the time I get to the end, my book is pretty much ready to submit. I'm usually a one draft writer.

Cheryl St.John said...

Hey, Anita! Thanks for being such a great host!

Hello Christine, how lovely to see you!

Helena, nice to meet other perfectionists, isn't it? I never know the end until I get there either - I always figure if I can't figure it out while I'm writing, the reader will be surprised too. LOL

Please do check out my classes!

Cheryl St.John said...

Hello Edna - Hayley you made me laugh!

Suse - thanks for visiting my shiny new website! I've had a crazy summer so far, but always try to add something to the recipe blog.

Captain Hook said...

I'm usually a one draft writer.

No offense, but I think I hate you now.

On the plus side though, my first drafts usually only take a week or two (when I can write for 2-3 hours everyday).

Janet said...

I'm jumping in with an apology for only skimming the post - my mom's here, the boxes are waiting to be packed, the sun has decided to shine. I'm going to come back to this tomorrow when I have some time to really let your words sink in, Cheryl (from what I've seen, there is some valuable lessons/advice in there), but I wanted to comment today.

I've been to your website many times, thanks to Anita and always come away with some tidbit or another to chew on, letting it settle into my way of writing, my style. So, thank you for those helpful posts.

And thanks for joining us here on The Prairies - the discussion taking place is great. Again, I'll read more thoroughly tomorrow. I can't wait to do the exercise - it might be just what I need to get Gillian and Mac finished up - finally :)

Thanks again, Cheryl.

Anita Mae Draper said...

One draft, Cheryl? Yikes!

I guess my biggest problem was that I wrote my 5 novels before attending a conference, taking workshops, etc. Afterward, I had to go back and start showing vs telling, revise passive writing and delete unnecessary words. And I realized I'd rather create than revise.

For my current wips, I'm trying to write them right first time around, so maybe I won't need to revise so much.

But then again, I am going to the American Christian Fiction Writers conf in Denver in Sept and that's a whole new round of workshops to attend. *sigh*

I might have been born a storyteller, but if you've read any of my blogs, it's the rules I'm struggling with.

Captain Hook said...

Anita, I am so with you there. I despise editing (except when I'm adding entire new chapters).

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Honorary Praririe Chick Cheryl, on behalf of the other Chicks, I'd really like to thank you for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to blog with us.

And I'm so glad these posts are permanent because this is one we'll refer back to.

Have a great day!

Erika said...

I know, I'm late. Sorry. I just wanted to drop a note and say I love this post. I am SO stuck in the middle right now. I found my AH-HA moment, or should I say it found me, now I'm just trying to figure out how to get it all into words. Thanks for the helpful tools, they are much appreciated.